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Speed Mentoring and Informational Interviews

2021 March 16
by Sheila

The virtual National Council on Public History conference began last week, and I am already missing my colleagues and friends and the opportunities to meet new people.

NCPH has always made space for students and early-career professionals and scholars to present and discuss their own projects, to network, and to learn about the latest research from the field as well as from professional development opportunities.

A conference staple was a Speed Networking session, offering job seekers and new graduates a chance to meet professionals working across the historical enterprise. Dozens of experienced public historians (“non-rotators”) sat at tables waiting for students and professionals (“rotators”) to move through the room for quick 15-minute conversations related to working and job hunting.

I was eager to serve as a “non-rotator” for the Speed Networking session. When I worked at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I was one of the few PhDs who had experience working outside of the academy and I often advised graduate students seeking public history and humanities careers. Sometimes I found myself advising colleagues far senior to me who wanted to know how they could get started in DH or potentially shift their careers.  Back in 2011, I began publishing an annual guide for a few years on “navigating DH for cultural heritage professionals.”

Whether chatting with a new graduate or seasoned professional, I never offered IFTTT pathways (If this, then, that), which everyone generally found unsatisfying. Rather, I suggested communities to connect with, professional development and learning opportunities, self-reflection, while acknowledging that job hunting and career building is exhausting, deflating, and exciting.

During the NCPH Speed Networking sessions, “rotators” were eager to hear how I and my colleagues got our current jobs, or inquired as to how we got started in DH,” and “what steps should they take to get where we are today.  Others might inquire why I left the  museum field, and then later, why I left a seemingly “stable” career in academia.

I understand why someone new the job market or new to the field might ask such questions.

The ways I got started in DH in the late 1990s and early 00s, however, aren’t possible today. Similarly, my MA program offered funding (the program doesn’t exist and no one seems to fund Master’s students these days). I worked full-time while earning my PhD. Someone may enjoy hearing my story, but ultimately it will not be helpful to them. I always needed to discuss how careers are personal and completely contextual.

Answers to some of these seemingly simple questions quickly delve into personal stories of privilege, motivation, discrimination, risks taken, rejections, choices made, and doors closed throughout a life. For most of us, there are pivotal circumstances that we may choose not to disclose to a stranger that often shape our career paths the most: relationships; health; financial stability; discrimination; harassment; toxic work environments; and bad bosses.

[ Racial and gender harassment and discrimination are present all over public history. Please tell someone you trust about these experiences, and then work towards identifying options that work for you. NCPH is building resources for survivors, summarized by Gregory Samantha Rosenthal in a recent History@Work post.]

For all of these reasons, my path is not replicable, nor are the careers of my colleagues. It is important for those us in mentoring positions to be honest about these realities, because I see that some harm is done by some established professionals who insist that what they did is replicable–look at me, I did it– even when the circumstances that supported their climb no longer exist, or shouldn’t have ever existed.

[Please note what follows is not designed to be advice for applying for teaching positions in the academy. I am not an authority on that market.]

fortune cookie fortune

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go where there is no path…and leave a trail.

If you are scheduling a speed networking event, ask the “non-rotators” to share their professional websites or CVs ahead of time for the participants to review. This not only offers a chance to learn more about the mentors, but also provides examples of how these individuals represent themselves through resumes, CVs, and professional websites (plus contact information for following up). Mine hasn’t been updated in awhile:

On the day of the event, provide a list of conversation-starters (or even a small deck of cards with questions). This takes the pressure off of everyone, intro-and extroverts alike, and gives everyone a chance to ease into the more complicated discussions of job hunting and career planning.

Here are some sample starter questions (with my answers):

  • What recent exhibit, digital project, or public program that excited you?
    • In February, I participated in Douglass Day, transcribing documents from Mary Church Terrell’s papers.
  • What are you currently reading, or what is something you recently read that you enjoyed?
    • I recently started Magic City by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which is set in 1921 during the massacre of African Americans and the neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, OK.
      I’m also reading The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman, a non-fiction book about bird behavior.
  • Is there a book, exhibit, project, that everyone in your field knows that you’ve never read/seen/experienced? (ie, what is your professional “secret”)
    • I have never read Moby Dick. And no, I’m not planning to read it soon.
  • Do you have a favorite tv/streaming show? Interesting movies?
    • I watch a lot of tv shows. The best movie I’ve seen in 2021 is One Night in Miami.

Once everyone is talking, then asking more specific questions about one’s career or current jobs help guide the conversation.

  • How did you realize that you wanted to work in history/humanities/cultural heritage? Did you have an ah-ha moment?
  • What sort of connections did you have starting out after college/after graduate school? If none, how did you make your earliest professional connections?
  • Do you feel comfortable sharing a risk you took during your career? What did you learn from that?
  • Have your professional and/or personal goals changed over the years?
  • If you feel comfortable sharing, what decisions have you made, or were made for you, that shape where you are now?
  • Is there something that you wished you had done or done more of when in graduate school, as an undergraduate, or early in your career?
  • How many jobs have you applied for?
  • What part of your current job do you like the most? What do you like the least?
  • Do you have a dream job?
  • What brings you joy when not working?

Here is a possible Speed Networking session with me.

  • How did you realize that you wanted to work in history/humanities/cultural heritage? Did you have an ah-ha moment?
    • During my first visit to the National Museum of American History, I saw how objects, narratives, and interactive elements were combined through exhibits to teach and to tell compelling stories. I wanted to someday be part of that.
  • What sort of connections did you have starting out after college/after graduate school? If none, how did you make professional connections?
    • Very few, and I wasn’t very good at asking for assistance or networking! I was advised to search through alumni directories from my undergraduate and MA program schools (nothing was online at the time). I looked for individuals who worked at museums. I found one person, who happened to be a museum director, and I scheduled an informational interview. That didn’t lead to a job or to make other connections, honestly, but he assured me that I made the right decision to pursue an MA in a discipline and acknowledged that it would take a long time to find a job in the field. He suggested I look for an internship to learn more about museum work to make some connections at one institution. At that time (late 1990s), there not many paid internship opportunities, and I hadn’t been able to intern anywhere because I needed to work.
  • Do you feel comfortable sharing a risk you took during your career? What did you learn from that?
    • I applied for and was hired for a “temporary” position as a museum educator at a federal museum. When I got the offer, I was two weeks away from moving in my mom (where I was living six months prior, while substitute teaching at my old high school) without a full-time job, at the conclusion of my paid museum internship in DC. The job was at the US Navy Museum (so named at the time). I knew some things about American history, but very little about the Navy and was apprehensive about working for the Department of Defense. The job was a GS-7/9, which was about the best grade one could find for breaking into the field at the time, and it did not come benefits. (I don’t think this category of federal employment exists anymore.) I earned sick and annual leave, but had no health insurance. This opportunity seemed pretty good for the short-term, because I did not have a family to support and I didn’t have health insurance at the time anyway (this was before the Affordable Care Act). If things didn’t work out, I could leave and move back home. I got very lucky. My job became permanent and I stayed for 7 years. When I left (another risk), I was the Director of Education.
  • How many jobs have you applied for?
    • Many! For some, I never got an interview or even an acknowledgement of my application.
      For others, I interviewed. I received offers I turned down, never received offers to consider, and of course, there are the few offers I accepted. Applying for jobs is useful in many ways, because this exercise helps you to practice presenting yourself, your experiences, and your capacity. You can learn how different organizations function and about the myriad of positions within cultural heritage/public humanities. Importantly, applying for jobs can help you to learn more about what you would really like to be doing in the world, to see your strengths and abilities, and to see what you do not like and do not want to support.
  • Do you have a dream job?
    • Director of a small history museum affiliated with a college or university located in a seaside town with affordable housing, where I teach a course in digital public history. (For the record, I love my current job!) There are many more details of this fantasy life I can share, but I won’t. It can be a fun exercise to imagine a dream job in a dream location, with a variety of circumstances, because it helps to clarify your aspirations and goals over your life. Who knows, you might get that job, or perhaps you already have it.

As a mentor, it is important that we offer encouragement and support to those who are starting out and those who are changing careers. I repeat to anyone who will listen that we will hold multiple jobs during our lives, and probably multiple careers. This is meant to reassure, but sometimes it is not received so well.

We can also encourage those we are advising or mentoring to develop a mission statement that describes what motivates them and what they want to accomplish in the world. My colleague Hannah Alpert-Abrams developed a worksheet for students that she currently gives to NEH interns (and she has organized a network to support job seekers). This format is easily adaptable, and encourages self-reflection through considering one’s life goals rather than specific jobs. That mission helps to guide your path and decisions over time.

Shifting perspectives in this way makes it is easier to consider how we “compose a life,” as Mary Catherine Bateson proposed (linked is an interview with her from On Being). Where we are now in life represents a combination of personal choices, systemic injustices, roadblocks, and the ways we move around, over, and through the opportunities and challenges in front of us at a given moment.

Hang in there, everyone.

I am so grateful for the professional and personal relationships that started at an NCPH conference, and look forward to seeing you all next year.


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